The abduction of twenty-three South Koreans by the Taliban has renewed fears of escalating violence against aid workers in Afghanistan. The South Koreans, abducted on July 19, are members of a Christian group reported to be providing medical and other aid to Afghans. Two men in the group have been killed (Reuters), and two ailing women were set free in what kidnappers called a “gesture of goodwill.” The remaining nineteen hostages have launched a hunger strike (Yonhap) protesting their treatment. Meanwhile, South Korean embassy officials ordered (AP) their aid organizations out of the country by the end of August. South Korea, which has Christian aid groups active in 160 countries, has spent some $60 million on reconstruction (IRIN) in Afghanistan since 2002.
Attacks on aid workers have become increasingly common since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. According to the blog NGO Security, twenty-four aid workers were killed in 2006, up from twelve in 2003. Between April and May, UN World Food Program workers suffered a dozen attacks (Independent) while transporting goods—as many as they suffered the previous ten months. The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office says aid workers have been targeted in seventy separate attacks so far this year. Troublingly, violence has also spread throughout the country where it was once confined to the south and east.
Seth Jones, an expert with the RAND Corporation, says the shift may represent a change in insurgents’ tactics. By targeting international NGOs, Jones says, the Taliban and armed gangs hope to encourage foreign governments to end their involvement (AP) in Afghanistan. In some cases, even the presence of civil-military Provisional Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, is having a perceived negative impact on aid worker safety. Created by U.S. forces to facilitate reconstruction, and adopted by NATO troops in Afghanistan, the teams are viewed by some NGOs as putting their workers in greater danger.
The targeting of aid groups comes amid encouraging developments on the aid front. Approximately 252 international NGO are registered with the Afghan Ministry of Economy, providing medical supplies, food aid, and reconstruction services to millions. The Afghan Red Crescent Society reports hundreds of its domestic workers have been able to move freely directly south of the capital. “We do not have problems with the Taliban,” the group’s director in Ghazni Province told IRIN. And the United Nations Refugee Agency reports that 4.8 million Afghans have returned home since repatriation began in 2002, though an estimated 3.5 million remain in Pakistan and Iran.
But with violence spreading, some groups in addition to the South Koreans have scaled back operations, a trend outlined in a recent Red Cross report. Following the shooting death of an aid worker in March, the German Agro Action network withdrew from the northern Saripul Province, where the worker was killed. Two months later, the group announced the planned reduction of all essential projects by October 2007. For now, most aid groups are soldiering on with vows to remain in Afghanistan. But even some Afghan officials are growing increasingly pessimistic (RFE/RL). “The work of the foreigners is very important,” said Mohammad Hashim Mayar, the deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief in Kabul, issuing a call for improved security. “We need their knowledge and experience; they have the resources; they come here to help those in need. They need a calm and secure atmosphere.”